In late October of last year the Philadelphia Phillies announced that they would hire Gabe Kapler as their new manager. Kapler had spent a lifetime in baseball. But that lifetime was just 42 years long, and he had never held the role of big league skipper.
In fact, Kapler had just one season of managerial experience at all. A decade earlier he guided the Greenville Drive, the Low A minor league affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, to a 58-81 record.
According to Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia, Kapler had impressed Phillies brass, which included controlling partner John Middleton and general manager Matt Klentak, with his “energy and intellect” during the interview process.
Salisbury quoted Klentak at the time of the hiring: “Gabe has a track record of leadership, winning, progressive thinking and working with young players, and we fully believe that he is the right person to guide this organization into the future.”
As Phillies fans have learned, Kapler is extraordinary at planning and research. He also knows his own shortcomings and is always looking to learn and improve.
Kapler knew well that he needed a bench coach with experience. Someone who could help him organize the team during his first-ever spring training, and then be available for sound advice in the dugout as the season unfolded.
According to Salisbury, Kapler did his research and what he kept hearing was that Thomson, then with the New York Yankees organization, was “the best in the business at planning and running a spring training camp.”
The 54-year-old Thomson had spent the last 28 years, more than half his life, in Yankees pinstripes. He was their third base coach when the Bronx Bombers defeated the Phillies in the 2009 World Series. He then became Joe Girardi‘s bench coach, and became one of the leading candidates to take over as manager of the storied franchise. That job ultimately went to Aaron Boone.
Before Boone could get settled in and begin considering his own coaching staff options, Kapler swooped in and swiped Thomson away. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, who chose Boone over Thomson for his club’s managerial position, was quoted by Salisbury:
“He’s tough. He will be brutally honest. He’ll say what a player needs to hear, not necessarily what a player wants to hear. And he’ll always relate well to players because he always has their best interest at heart. The Phillies got one of the best.”
Thomson was everything that Kapler hoped, taking charge of spring training with input from the entire coaching staff. Meghan Montemurro with The Athletic caught up with him as his first spring down in Clearwater was coming to an end, quoting him on the most valuable attribute of a bench coach:
“…the manager, he’s got so many things to deal with. He’s got the pitching staff. He’s got double switches. He’s got his offense. He’s got his defense. He’s got a lot of things on his mind. So my job primarily is to be prepared and just keep reminding him of certain things and ask questions just to remind him of certain things and to make sure we don’t forget anything.”
As most fans of the team and those around the game already are well aware, Kapler had a rough opening week. The club lost four of their first five games and stood at just 3-5 after the bullpen blew a game late on April 8. Worse than the on-field struggles, it appeared that there could be early trouble brewing in the clubhouse as well.
Inside Baseball: Gabe Kapler heard some boos today from the home crowd, but he has more important folks to win over. he has time but here's a quote from the clubhouse on phils' slow start: "We'll be OK … We just need the manager to get out of the way." https://t.co/T8SPHCKRY0
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) April 6, 2018
Heyman is a good, knowledgeable Major League Baseball information source with generally reliable sources. However, he is also prone to feeding into melodramatic story lines and rumors at times.
As the Phillies ship began to right itself over the coming weeks, Heyman quoted an anonymous scout who suggested that it was the influence of Thomson that was most responsible for that turnaround.
Per Phillies Nation’s Tim Kelly, then for Sports Talk Philly, Heyman quoted the scout: “Thomson literally has taken over game decisions. He just tells Kapler what to do and he does it – like a puppet.”
Anyone who knows Kapler would know that is nothing more than pure hogwash. Kapler is about as confident an individual as you are going to find in the game. While he absolutely seeks advice and input from Thomson and all of his coaches, he is never going to be anyone’s puppet.
Instead, the more likely scenario is that Thomson has provided Kapler with exactly what the manager wanted when he made the bench coach choice. An experienced voice. A baseball mind that has been in the dugout and the clubhouse, seen and heard it all, and who has invaluable advice to provide.
Kapler takes in that advice, processes it with the other information that he possesses from his own experience base and the analytical tools the organization provides him with, and makes his decisions.
By the time his former Yankees friends arrived in Philadelphia for a late June series at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies had fought their way to a winning record and looked like a young club on the rise.
Meredith Marakovitz of the YES Network scored an interview with Thomson, and specifically asked his opinion on Kapler:
“Unbelievable. This guy’s got it. He’s gonna be a really, really great manager. He’s got great communication skills. He understands the analytics part of the game. And he understands the heartbeat of a player, being a former player himself. We went through some rough times early, but he’s stuck with it. He’s very positive. He learns from mistakes. He adjusts well. I think he’s just tremendous to work for.”
The Phillies have had their ups and downs in this 2018 season as they battle to shed the losing of the last half-decade and return to contending status. But since that rough opening stretch the club has fashioned a 63-48 record. They currently control an NL Wildcard playoff berth. The Phillies also recently spent more than a month at the top of the NL East standings.
With baseball’s youngest lineup for most of the season and with a rookie manager, Thomson’s veteran input has been a big part of the ability of this team to weather its growing pains.
Thomson is celebrating his 55th birthday today. He will be in the dugout this evening as the Phillies host the New York Mets in a big doubleheader at Citizens Bank Park. So he will be spending his birthday doing the thing he does best and enjoys most. He will be doing everything he can to help a big-league baseball team win games. Kapler and the Phillies are lucky that it’s their team that Thomson is now helping.
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